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Superb and thorough
on March 17, 2002
Evolution the Triumph of an Idea is a superbly written synthesis of the theory of evolution and its history. The author, Carl Zimmer, is a science journalist rather than a professional anthropologist, geologist or historian, which means that the book is eminently readable. It is also well researched with an extensive bibliography for each chapter. While it is clearly enough framed for the average reader without a background in the subject, it also presents enough new information to keep the serious student of the topic interested as well.
Although the volume was intended to accompany a PBS series on evolution, it would make an excellent source text for a high school or college survey course on the subject, as it covers the theory, the data supporting it, the newer thoughts on human evolution, the issues of ecology and conservation, and the character of science. It even touches upon the issue of God and science.
As an overview, Part 1 covers the autobiographical history of Darwin and the metamorphosis of his theory and the intellectual and emotional environment into which it was introduced. Part 2 introduces the actual theory and how the web of life has come to exist as it does. It also discusses the impact of human activity on the natural world and what the likely outcome will be if we persist in pursuing our present behavior with respect to the environment. Part 3 describes the coevolution of species and its impacts on relationships such as those in agriculture: natural plants, bioengineered plants, and insect and microbial pests. It also discusses the probable origin of some of the human diseases, the use and abuse of antibiotics, and the rise of antibiotic resistant superbugs and AIDES. Part 4 contains some of the most pertinent information in that it points out the risks of dropping the subject of evolution from the core curricula of the nation's high schools.
In his defense of evolution, Zimmer points out that it is not simply a theory of biology that is at stake, but the scientific method itself. Some of my favorite quotes from Part 4 are: 1) "The scientific method does not claim that events can have only natural causes but that the only causes that we can understand scientifically are natural ones. As powerful as the scientific method may be, it must be mute about things beyond its scope. Supernatural forces are, by definition, above the laws of nature, and thus beyond the scope of science (p. 332)." And 2) "When microbiologists study an outbreak of resistant tuberculosis, they do not research the possibility that it is an act of God. When astrophysicists try to figure out the sequence of events by which a primordial cloud condensed into our solar system, they do not simply draw a big box between the hazy cloud and the well-formed planets and write inside it, `Here a miracle happened.' When meteorologists fail to predict the path of a hurricane, they do not claim that God's will pushed it off course (p. 333)." And finally 3) "Science cannot simply cede the unknown in nature to the divine. If it did, there would be no science at all. As University of Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne puts it, `If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labeling our ignorance `God'`(p. 333)."
As we get closer and closer to bringing about a total collapse of the environment of which we are an integral part, it behooves us to come to a clearer understanding of how our biosphere came to exist, how the various parts of it interrelate, and how our tinkering with it can have disastrous consequences. The teaching and learning of evolutionary theory is an important part of that understanding. This book helps further that goal.